It’s strange sometimes how the threads of life come together in unexpected ways. When it happens through music, it may appear to be less random. We all have a soundtrack for our lives, whether it be rock n roll, country, hip-hop, classical, jazz, alternative, punk, all of the above or any other combination. New Orleans has its own constant beat, a syncopated rhythm that permeates our lives. Fortunately, I’m a tenor. Choirs seem to always need tenors. It helps if you can read music and carry a tune; simply being a tenor is not sufficient, but it helps. Lucky me.
Choral singing has always been an important part of my life. As a member of the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans, when our music director informed us that this season we would perform “Tyler’s Suite,” my first reaction was “OK, who’s Tyler?” To which our music director replied, “You know, the young musician from New Jersey whose act of desperation inspired his family to start an anti-bullying foundation. A number of Broadway composers and lyricists wrote a nine movement choral piece about Tyler, his life, his family and his legacy.” This reminder awakened some dormant brain cells. Yes, I remember all too well the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, an accomplished young violinist who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his college roommate set up a webcam that recorded Tyler kissing another man. Now the threads of connection started to flow at full force.
We are performing “Tyler’s Suite” at Temple Sinai, a magnificent structure that eerily resembles the synagogue of my youth, Temple Emanuel. The two buildings were completed just a year apart—Temple Sinai in 1928, Temple Emanuel in 1929. Their main sanctuaries are strikingly similar. Both are adorned with stained glass windows that are beautiful when the light falls on them from behind. Both sanctuaries have the same type of seating, the same number of seats and the same layout, although the temple from my youth holds more memories for me.
I am a native of Paterson, New Jersey. During my youth, I often walked down East 33rd Street towards the Passaic River, passing Temple Emanuel on the corner of 33rd and Broadway (Temple Emanuel’s congregation moved many years ago). As I continued walking, I would pass 12th Ave, then 11th Ave and come to the 10th Avenue Circle (now circle-less and is just another intersection), which connects Paterson to Fair Lawn via the Morlot Avenue Bridge that crosses the Passaic River. On the other side of Fair Lawn lies Ridgewood, the home of Tyler Clementi and his family.
There are other connections, too. Tyler’s mom Jane was born in Paterson (but grew up in Fair Lawn). My brother’s wife was from Ridgewood, a member of its Italian community, and I learned the various routes from anyplace in New Jersey to Ridgewood, most of which involve Routes 17, 4 the Garden State Parkway or some combination of them.
Another connection to Tyler and his family is Rutgers—the college he chose to attend after he graduated from high school. Yes, I am a Rutgers alumnus. Freshman year at college is a time for personal discovery. The first time away from home, one can try on different identities to see how they fit. One can explore and experience the world. One probes, prods, takes on different mantles and checks the reaction of self and others. Who shall I be today?
I remember, oh so clearly, my first year at Rutgers. Assigned to Davidson dormitory on the Heights Campus, which is now the Busch Campus, we had no idea what we had gotten into until we got there. At that time there were only two buildings on the Heights Campus—newly constructed math and science buildings. The Heights Campus could have been across the ocean. It was considered banishment to live there. The dormitory was at least three miles from the main College Avenue campus. Since freshmen were not allowed to have cars on campus, the only way to get to the main campus was by shuttle bus. The bus stopped running at 10 p.m. If you missed the last bus, it was a long walk back to the dorm. Freshmen were assigned there because no upperclassman in his right mind would volunteer to live there Yes, I said upperclassman—Rutgers was not yet co-ed when I arrived.
Davidson A, B, C, and D, two H shaped buildings side by side, shared a cafeteria in common. Our limited transportation options meant we were stuck with each other. We played a lot of crab soccer in the big common area, which was our gathering place. We were young. We were on our own. We were exploring life and attempting to define ourselves. We did the same things that generations before us had done, and the same things that those who would follow us would do. Sadly, Tyler never had the chance to experience such things.
While in high school I attended a school in Manhattan, so three times a week I took the bus across the George Washington Bridge where the bus terminal connected to the 175th Street IND 8th Avenue subway station that I would take to 125th street. I’ve walked across the George Washington Bridge and felt the pull the flowing water far below exerts on people: beautiful, peaceful, remarkable in its power and its temptations. I know the path Tyler walked, but not Tyler’s pain.
Our lives are framed by institutions. The first institution we experience is the family we are born into—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. The next institution we experience is spiritual, as most of us and our families are members of some religious faith, then school, work. Family, faith, school—places that are supposed to be safe.
I know Tyler’s geography all too well. We have institutions in common. We have cities in common. We have North Jersey, the GWB, Rutgers, Ridgewood and Paterson. We have threads that tie our lives to one another even though we never met. Threads ravel and unravel. Perhaps Tyler’s threads unraveled to the point where they could no longer bear his weight. It was left to his family to pick up those threads and weave something more enduring through music—another connection. I know Tyler’s hometown. I know his college campus. I know everything about him except the man/boy himself. Now, I am getting to know him through the nine movements of “Tyler’s Suite.”
I hope you have an opportunity to experience “Tyler’s Suite” for yourself.
Hank Fanberg is a 10-year member of the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans and its current board president. A native of Paterson, New Jersey, he is a long time resident of New Orleans. He is employed by CHRISTUS Health, one of the nation’s largest faith based Catholic health systems where he serves as a member of the office of the CIO and is responsible for technology advocacy and innovation. He has a life long interest in vocal music and has sung in choruses including the New Orleans Opera Chorus, Zamir Chorale and others since his teens.
The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.